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'Havana in Chicago' raises money for impoverished Cubans
by Gretchen Rachel Blickensderfer

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The music of Cuba echoed onto the street in front of Sidetrack July 19. A pea-green 1951 Chevrolet Bel Air parked there sported the Cuban flag and a sign that promised visitors to the bar authentic dishes from the island provided by Paladar restaurant, refreshing mojitos and the Afro-Cuban rhythms of the renowned Latin Inspiration band until long into the evening.

The sights, sounds and smells of a Havana street had been transferred to North Halsted all to raise money and awareness about the plight of children and families living less than 100 miles from the southern coast of Florida.

While some once lauded the Cuban healthcare system as a model for the Americas and it became a popular destination for health tourism, the reality for the island's people is quite different.

In 2012, Al Jazeera reporter Lucia Newman noted terrible shortages in medicine in Cuba—with drugs as simple as Aspirin having to be purchased on the black market. She described long waits to see low-paid doctors in "hospitals where there was often no running water," she said. "The toilets did not flush, and the risk of infections—by the hospital's own admission—was extremely high."

In February 2014, the Miami Herald reported that Cuban ruler Raul Castro's government had dramatically cut social spending, leading to a poverty rate of 26 percent, a massive shortage of homes and the islands' elderly citizens receiving an average pension of $10 per month.

The Grand Rapids, Michigan-based organization First Hand Aid works to provide financial assistance to Cuban families, supplies pediatric hospitals with goods ranging such as needles and desperately needed bandages, antibiotics and cancer drugs. It even assists with over-the-counter medications, gloves, soap and toothpaste and supplements general hospitals in rural areas such as Guines which are ill equipped to deal with diseases such as a 2013 cholera outbreak that threatened the entire community. First Hand Aid delivers food to Cuba's seniors whose children and grandchildren have long since fled the island. They have been left in squalor, unable to put food on the table or leave their own home without help.

The work has been a passion of co-founder and Executive Director of First Hand Aid Marc Bohland for more than 14 years. "I worked in a hospital with Dr. Eddie Marcial," Bohland recalled. "He had escaped from Cuba in an inner tube. I asked if I could help him and so I went down to Cuba and lived with his family and worked in their village. One year begot another and we built an organization together. Once you get involved with Cuba, you can't stop."

Bohland's organization is close to the heart of Sidetrack owners Pepe Pena and Art Johnston, who became involved with First Hand Aid four years ago. Pena left Cuba as a teenager in 1962 having witnessed the repercussions of the Cuban revolution and the failed Bay of Pigs invasion. "It was really insane," Pena told Windy City Times. "People were pointing the finger at others who were then sent to the firing squad. There was no system. People were rounded up and put into stadiums to make sure that no one would rise up and help the invasion."

First Hand Aid maintains that Cuba has since been "frozen in time. Families struggle to make ends meet and put food on the table," it says on its website. "To the Cuban people, it can seem like the world has moved on without them."

"There is no question that—even before [Fidel] Castro—Cuba had excellent health care," Johnston said. "But the reality today is that health care is limited by the U.S. embargo. Any modern drug that originates in the United States cannot go to Cuba. Then you have many of the doctors there leaving the profession because the pay is so low."

"We also reach out to the gay community in Cuba," Bohland added. "Although government oppression of gay people has changed considerably, there's still a long way to go. Art and Pepe have given the gay leaders down there some contact with the outside world."

People don't have to simply take Pena and Johnston's word as proof of the dire conditions in Cuba. Bohland takes groups of people over to the island to see for themselves. They have been composed of church organizations, doctors, lawyers and even baseball teams.

Once a year, Pena and Johnston also make the humanitarian journey with a group of 10-18 people. "These trips are totally legal with the Cuban and U.S. governments," Johnston said. "Most of our group is from the gay and lesbian community. We go for about a week, work in the hospitals and deliver meals to seniors who have no food. All the people who have gone with me have asked when they can go back."

This is the second year that Sidetrack's Havana in Chicago has been in operation as a fundraiser for First Hand Aid. Last year, it brought in $25,000. With silent-auction donations from businesses across the city, and visitors in Panama hats lining the bar, Johnston said he had high hopes for the evening. "We are offering Americans the opportunity to make a giant difference is other people's lives," he said. "And they are a wonderful people. Every Cuban has family in the United States. Despite what their government has told them, there is not one ounce of antipathy towards Americans. The most wonderful thing about Cuba is that it's filled with Cubans."

For more information about First Hand Aid please go to .

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